Chris's Reviews > Representative Men: Seven Lectures

Representative Men by Ralph Waldo Emerson
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Sep 22, 09

Read in August, 2009

Emerson's "Representative Men" is a selection of exemplars from history that more or less became the typification in Emerson's mind of the kind of giants that have gone before and trailblazed a way to truth and understanding within western civilization. Included in the essays are discussions on the contributions of (in order of my favorites) Montaigne (representative of skeptics), Shakespeare (of poets), Plato (of philosophers), Goethe (of writers), Napoleon (of 'leaders of the people' [my words:]), and Swedenborg (of mystics).

Emerson's discussions became a bit too thick at times with his own spin towards new ways of thinking about these categories of leaders. Emerson is fresh enough without belaboring the exposition to the point of confusing the reader with the superior genius of each character. If you have ever read Emerson you know that you will always come away with a new way of understanding an old concept. He has a way of brushing off the old truths, making them shine, and even purifying them so you have a better concentration, and possibly more, of them than ever before. He makes you turn over the dumb rock in your hand to reveal a speaking jewel. But there is such a thing as too much newness. It is said that for communication to take place, there has to be a balance of the familiar with the novel. Emerson is heavy on novelty, always, but especially in this book, and he overdoes it a bit at points for my taste. But Emerson was writing to people that included those who, I'm sure, were a bit more intelligent than myself. And taking into account the fact that Emerson himself was more intelligent than I, I have to conclude that though the book was a bit too 'orotund' and convoluted at points for myself, yet it may only seem that way because I am several rungs down from his cognitive level of functioning. I heartily enjoy even his abstruse ramblings that go over my head, and I can even appreciate it's value when I get nearly nothing out of it. I have faith that some are picking up what I'm dropping. It's true Emerson-ian style, and I take the good with the 'less-good'.

What Emerson does best in this book is persuade me to pick up works by all the authors he descants on EXCEPT for Swedenborg. Emerson appeared to betray his distaste for the final turn of Swedenborg's literary career for which he became notorious in religious spheres. His discourse on Napoleaon was favorable as far as his early career and his practical genius, but he confesses Napoleon's moral self to be debased, and ineffective in respect towards any lasting benefits. As for the rest, he makes you feel like they truly understood the common man and even wrote to raise 'plebian' ideas to a more celestial atmosphere. Emerson seems to imply, "What's theirs is ours, and they help us to see that they don't own their thoughts as original; but they share their ideas as born from the collective human consciousness of which each of our own minds are a part and contributor." Emerson writes at the end of the book, "The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world."

Emerson brings down high truth to my level, and he helps me to identify other 'representative men' who have done that as well, and maybe better. We honor truth, says Emerson, not by plating glass over it in the prestigious halls of academia, but rather we 'honor every truth by use'.
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